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Almanacs date back to the Middle Ages. Giving forecasts of weather, the movement of heavenly bodies, recipes, advice on planting and soil, the almanac has a particular connection to farming. The Farmers’ Almanac has been published continuously in the US since 1818 and also exists in an annual Canadian version. Both Earth to Table and A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen are, in their different ways, almanacs. Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann divide their book into chapters about spring, summer, fall, and winter foods, with advice about foraging and planning an herb garden as well as profiles of celebrity chefs who have made local ingredients the cornerstone of their restaurants. A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen follows a similar organization except that Lucy Waverman devotes chapters to each of the twelve months. “With March,” she writes in the almanac mode, “comes an inevitable restlessness—winter is nearly over but spring has not quite arrived. It is time to bring in the sun even if it is just in your menu” (68). At the same time, Waverman offers menus for celebratory days, including a Robbie Burns Night Supper, Chinese New Year, Passover, Victoria Day, Thanksgiving, and “Deconstructed Hanukkah.” Waverman’s recipes, relentlessly multicultural, range from “Banofee Pie” to “Mollusk Medley with Wasabi Sauce.” By contrast, Earth to Table—written in the first-person singular about experiences that are clearly Crump’s rather than Schormann’s—adheres closely to American and European classic recipes, with local variations, such as gnudi and braised lamb shanks.
Earth to Table and A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen diverge in their understanding and advocacy of the Slow Food movement. Crump takes an active interest in the source of products. He advises cooks to harvest dandelion greens from their front lawns or to forage in the woods in springtime for ramps and morels. A menu should start with what is currently available, he insists, either in the garden or at the farmers’ market. As he notes several times in Earth to Table, “We do not really value good food, so we get cheap food” (240). Cheap food does not taste particularly good, in Crump’s view, because it emphasizes industrial processing over freshness. It often arrives from the other side of the planet in frozen form, rather than fresh from nearby. However laudable, Crump’s commitment to local ingredients sometimes verges on the comic. He regularly recommends “local dry red wine,” “local dry white wine,” or “a teaspoon of local honey.” Not everyone in Saskatchewan or New Brunswick will have access to “local” wine. Some ingredients, perhaps, just cannot be local. How local, in any case, is local? If it grows within two hours of where you live, is it local? In the same province? Does one have to live on an Ontario sideroad next to a farm with goats, rhubarb, and cherry trees to benefit from local food? As Crump admits, not everyone who wants to bake a loaf of bread will be able “to plant, grow, harvest and process their own Red Fife wheat” (146). Nonetheless, he believes that “understanding food, and knowing how to cook it, is a basic freedom” (288). For Crump, food preparation is a form of citizenship. In order to be a good citizen, one should support local farmers and eat locally grown produce.
In a brief introduction to A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen, Waverman acknowledges that “more and more people” are eating at home because it is environmentally and economically the right thing to do: “[w]ith the rebirth of farmers’ markets, a food movement has emerged that looks to local, seasonal and sustainable food as the healthiest, most environmentally sensitive way to eat” (9). More and more people might believe in the virtues of local food, but Waverman merely pays lip service to the idea. In a note about April foods, she writes, “[f]oraging is a food tradition that I support, and this month you can find some exciting fresh green tastes—both in the wild and at the market” (86). Foraging does not mean shopping at the market; it means finding and harvesting your own food. In Waverman’s Weltanschauung, other people forage while she shops at the nearest grocery store. In a recipe called “Chicken with Green Peas and Morels,” listed as a suitable dish for May, Waverman gives away her indifference to the pleasures of local and seasonal recipes: “[d]uring a weekend in Paris, Bruce [Waverman’s husband] and I sought out restaurants that were very fine but not Michelin starred. We wanted to go to bistros that were chef-owned and where food was prepared with love and care” (124). The inspiration for the dish is unabashedly French, not at all local, and there is nothing especially seasonal about chicken with peas and morels. “Substitute oyster mushrooms or soaked dried morels if fresh morels are not available,” she counsels (128). So much for morels found in a Canadian woodlot in springtime.
If her recipes are any indication, Waverman takes for granted that ingredients are available year-round in some form, as indeed they are in supermarkets where global, packaged food prevails. Slow Food, she implies, has its limits. It takes time; it is less efficient to produce; ingredients cost more. Not every chef has the time to root up morels or the expertise to raise and butcher rabbits. Jeff Crump also acknowledges that good, local food can be more expensive. On the other hand, he argues that farming in the name of efficiency—fertilizing with nitrogen to increase crop yields or raising cattle in feedlots—takes money out of local economies. If one pays more for local ingredients, that money remains within the local economy.
In keeping with his Slow Food commitments, Crump assumes that food preparation has an ethical dimension. No animal should be killed for food that ends up going to waste. If eaters cultivate their “innate sympathy for all animals” (234), they will understand that animals slaughtered for meat are, in a manner of speaking, sacrificed. These animals deserve respect. In Earth to Table, Crump tends to anthropomorphize animals: “Horses stand quizzically by the fence” (152). Pigs sniff “purposefully in a copse of trees” (166). Fowl waddle “merrily” (8). In a lyrical moment, Crump imagines “a herb garden bursting with life, buzzing with dizzy bees and drenching the summer breeze with its aroma” (233). The bees are probably “dizzy” only for the sake of onomatopoiea. A dizzy bee must be a rare and wondrous sight. Crump likewise observes “nervous bunnies” and “ducks quacking nervously in a cold barn” (235). These animals belong within the sphere of human activity, which underlies the belief that all animals deserve sympathy from human beings. Noticeably, the title of Crump’s book, Earth to Table, puts an emphasis on vegetables and grains, food sources that come out of the ground, rather than animals and meat. If Crump’s ethical consideration of animals in Earth to Table is somewhat touchy-feely, Lucy Waverman makes no reference at all to the source of meat in A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen. Qualms about slaughtering animals for meat do not cross her mind. For Thanksgiving, she advises, “[b]uy the finest turkey you can afford. The best choices are free-range organic or kosher turkeys, which have already been brined, but a fresh air-chilled bird is also good” (228).
A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen contains practical recipes for weeknight cooking. Chicken appears in 17 different guises, including “Chicken Osso Bucco.” The majority of Waverman’s recipes can be made without having to plan ahead. By comparison, Earth to Table has recipes with ingredients that might not be in every pantry or fridge: “Crispy Halloumi Cheese with Cortland Apple Chutney” or “Calf’s Liver with Cavolo Nero.” Cavolo nero is an Italian cabbage with dark green leaves. By the same token, many of Crump’s recipes are dead easy, even rather superfluous, such as “Scrambled Eggs with Chives and Caviar” and “Roasted Root Vegetables.” Some recipes are revelations. Cipollini onions simmered in port become sweet without being cloying. The recipe for “Rabbit Stew with Herbed Dumplings” expands the rabbit repertory, not because of the stew but because of the dumplings. Dumplings—the liquidy, German sort that puff up during cooking—are comfort food of the highest order. If Earth to Table suffers from a fault, it is too much pizza. In addition to pizza dough, Crump offers recipes for potato and rosemary pizza, fresh ricotta and roasted pepper pizza, squash, sage, and pancetta pizza, wild mushroom and roasted corn pizza, sweet Mediterranean pizza, or make-your-own-toppings pizza.
On the other hand, Crump has a very personal understanding of herbs. Hardy herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and sage, “can stand cooking without deteriorating” (230). Delicate herbs, such as chervil, basil, tarragon, and chives, “should be added to dishes only at the end of cooking or just before serving” (230). Crump despises dried herbs, because they turn stale, powdery, and tasteless. Bay leaves, of course, are exceptions because they dry without losing flavour. “Parsley,” he admonishes, “is often used as a garnish, rather than as a flavoring” (233). Rather tendentiously, he calls chervil “a fancy-pants garnish” (232). One of the fines herbes in French cooking, chervil has a delicate aniseed flavour that suits omelettes, vegetables, and soups. Far from being “fancy-pants,” chervil is a democratic, subtle, blending-in sort of herb.
Every cookbook has a secret code of ingredients: some ingredients are slipped into dishes in unusual ways, to enhance flavour or create a counterpoint. In A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen, “Asian chili sauce” makes frequent appearances. It shows up in a January recipe called “Thai Salad with Crispy Shrimp” and an October dish called “Asian Pear and Cabbage Slaw.” Similarly, ground cumin appears in surprising, sometimes sly, ways in any number of dishes. In Earth to Table, Crump has a fondness for Granny Smith apples over other varieties. He sneaks fennel into roasted pork loin and fish soup, as well as pickled and braised forms. He fancies honey and Red Fife wheat, sometimes in the same recipe.
Both Earth to Table and A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen struggle with the definition of “food,” although the struggle in Crump’s book is far more earnest, and ultimately much more engaging. At what point does a stalk of wheat or a wild leek become “food”? Just because it grows, a plant is not invariably food. A plant or an animal becomes food when it is processed, to whatever degree, with a view to being eaten. A “plant” differs from an “ingredient” according to the intention to eat that is directed towards it. A maple tree is a plant until it is tapped for sap, an activity that converts the tree into a source of food. “Food” happens through transformation or processing. When the plant is partly or wholly transformed through human intervention, it is on its way to being an “ingredient” or “food.”
In A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen, Waverman takes the definition of “food” for granted; putting dinner on the table preoccupies her. By contrast, in Earth to Table Crump wonders about the philosophical implications of eating. In general, he makes no categorical distinction between “plant,” “ingredient,” and “food.” He implies that processing converts plants into food. “As a cook,” writes Crump, “you’re transforming food, whether it’s by braising or caramelizing it, or by working with foods that have already been transformed through canning or freezing” (224). Food, in other words, requires various degrees of processing, from the rudimentary to the most sophisticated and multiple: harvesting, squeezing, trimming, chopping, cooking. The degree of processing—which does not mean industrial processing only—depends on the seasonality and freshness of ingredients. According to Crump, “The point of summer dishes is to do as little as possible” (150).
If one judges by her recipes, Lucy Waverman throws interesting parties. But when it comes to talking about the ethics and meaning of food, Jeff Crump has a great deal more to say.
Allan Hepburn teaches English literature at McGill University. He has written two books: Intrigue (2005) and Enchanted Objects (2010). He has also edited four books, including three volumes of previously ungathered material by Elizabeth Bowen. His current research, generously funded by SSHRC, concerns faith and British culture during and after the Second World War.
Allan Hepburn enseigne la littérature anglaise à l'université de McGill. Il a écrit deux livres : Intrigue (2005) et Objets enchantés (2010). Il a également édité quatre livres, y compris trois volumes de matériel par Elizabeth Bowen. Sa recherche actuelle, généreusement financée par le CRSH, porte sur la foi et la culture britannique pendant et après la deuxième guerre mondiale.